See You in the Fall Blogathon: The motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)

This essay is for the See You in the Fall blogathon. Check out the roster for other posts celebrating our favorite moments in physical comedy. (Also forgive me for the lack of photos. WordPress is not co-operating today.

Sherlock Jr. was a monumental film in my earliest days of silent film geekdom. It was the film that solidified an admiration for silent cinema in general and converted me into a Buster Keaton fanatic overnight.

It’s hard to select a favorite scene. Buster jumping into the world of the screen and undergoing a series of editing shifts is rightly the most celebrated in the film and has been dissected countless times. The pool game is hilarious and creative (Hilariously creative? Creatively hilarious?). The moment where Buster seems to leap through his assistants stomach and disappear had me rewinding the film and still dazzles. But when push comes to shove, the motorcycle race to save Kathyrn MacGuire is the highlight of the movie for me.

The sequence starts off with Sherlock running down the street as he is pursued by one of his rival’s gang members. A mustachioed police officer on a motorcycle stops to question Sherlock as to what’s the matter, causing the pursuing goon to retreat; however, it turns out the officer is really Sherlock’s assistant Gillette in a not-so-convincing faux-stache (a cute in-joke referring to actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes onstage and in a 1916 film version long thought lost, only to be rediscovered last year). Sherlock hops onto the front of the bike and points Gillette in the direction of the place where the heroine is being held against her will.

Unfortunately for Sherlock, Gillette is tossed off the bike when they hit a pothole, leaving Sherlock balanced on the handlebars as the bike rushes driver-less through the streets. Unwitting of his predicament, Sherlock is taken at high speeds through the busy roads in town, through a bachelor party in the country, barely evading trains, trucks, trees, dynamite, and collapsing bridges. Either his guardian angel is working overtime or fate is being especially good to him until he crashes through the window of a shack and knocking one of the occupiers through the opposite window. Conveniently, the shack is where the heroine is being held and the victim of Buster’s dramatic entry is none other than one of the rival’s goons.

Keaton’s physicality is astounding. No doubt today, the scene would be shot with a CG double in the long shots or the actor in front of a green screen. Not in the silent era and certainly not under Keaton’s watch: he learned how to control the bike from the handlebars before shooting and shot the majority of the sequence on actual streets. There are a few moments of cinematic trickery, such as the bit with Buster evading a train being played backwards or the two trucks forming a bridge being a composite shot, but if you’re expecting rear projection or miniatures, you will not find them here.

The funniest moment comes when Sherlock realizes his situation, turning around only to find Gillette has been long gone. The bike jerks as though channeling the character’s shock. Then Sherlock looks straight into the camera with a look of indignation, as though we should have mentioned this mishap to him from beyond the fourth wall.

The magic of the scene comes from its illusion of spontaneity. While silent comedians did do a great deal of improvisation, there’s little chance that a sequence as intricate as the motorcycle chase had much room for that. That it feels so immediate, as though this were all unfolding in real time and operating on the good graces of Lady Luck, is a testament to Keaton and his creative team.

College (dir. James W. Horne, 1927)

college_a85af5d8

Out of Buster Keaton’s independent features, I would have to say Three Ages and College seem to tie as the least favorite for most fans. Not that anyone outright dislikes these films as far as I know, but many do feel they represent Keaton and his team at their least inspired. It’s believed that the financial disappointment of the comedy epic The General forced something a bit safer and more formulaic upon Keaton, further souring the behind the scenes story of this picture. But should College really be looked upon so harshly? After all, if the similarly low-key Battling Butler had the misfortune of being made after the high point of Keaton’s magnum opus rather than before, if the places were switched, would we view College as negatively as we do? Were the places switched, would it in fact be considered underrated in the extreme?

Keaton is Ronald, a nerdy high school graduate who happens to be dating Mary (Anne Cornwall), the most popular girl of the class. Having more intellectual smarts than common sense, Ronald gives a speech about the uselessness of athletics in front of his classmates—all of whom are either athletes or sports fans. Offended and embarrassed to be associated with him, Mary breaks up with Ronald, telling him she’ll return to him if he “changes [his] mind about athletics.”

Hardcore nerd Ronald may be, but Mary’s affections reign supreme in his world, so the freshman decides to follow her to the expensive Clayton University. Of course, the path to true love does not run smooth: being from a middle class background, Ronald is forced to work a series of odd jobs to pay his way through higher education; he’s the target of campus bully Harold (Harold Goodwin, who turned out to be one of Keaton’s lifelong pals off-screen) and love rival Harold; and his attempts to break into the campus sports scene result in one epic fail after the other.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

The film is largely episodic: Ronald attempts to either hold down a job or try out for one of the sports teams on-campus, fails, embarrasses himself in front of a sympathetic Mary and a snickering Harold, rinse, repeat. These vignettes range from highly entertaining to unpleasant. The restaurant sequence is universally considered the low point of the movie, with Buster appearing in blackface due to the establishment only wanting “colored help.” (Yes, this was another time where white audiences thought this way okay; that does not make it inoffensive). The parts where Ronald gets booed while giving his speech about “The Curse of Athletics” or hazed by his brawnier classmates always feel too nasty to be funny.

But what does work is fabulous. My favorite episodes in the film are the soda shop and track sequences. The soda shop is truly classic Keaton routine (one I’m surprised he never recycled for any of his later television or stage work), a great example of one character doing something with style and grace and then the main character emulating them but getting everything wrong. The soda jerk behind the counter does his work of making milkshakes with deftness and ease, catching ice cream scoops and sliding down glasses to customers with just the right amount of momentum. Ronald’s own performance of these duties is a delightful parody of physical grace, his own concoctions a wonderful mess.

The track and field scene isn’t especially groundbreaking, but it has two things going for it. The first is that it’s relatively inspired. Buster gets to jump about and torture himself in various amusing ways, my favorite being his attempt to pole vault which leaves him with his upper half stuck in the ground, his legs protruding from the dust like ungainly daisies. And the second reason? Well, it should really count against the believability of the story all things considered; we’re told Ronald is this physically-challenged nerd, made to think that under those sweaters and baggy tops he has the physique of Steve Urkel, yet the moment he changes into those track clothes we see a lean, muscular man. The only in-universe explanations I can come up with are that either Ronald got those muscles from heavy text books or being bitten by a radioactive spider during a field trip. The illusion of the nerd is broken, but—my goodness, Keaton looks so good in those clothes! No complaints here!

Psst, Buster--- your gorgeous physique is showing!

Psst, Buster— your gorgeous physique is showing!

College is often compared to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though it might be more accurate to view it as part of one of the most popular film genre of 1920s Hollywood, the campus comedy. Comic performers such as Marion Davies and William Haines also starred in college comedies of their own during the decade. While The Freshman and College are of a similar genre and involve a rather geeky fellow going into the world of sports, the similarities end there, mainly because Lloyd and Keaton’s characters do not share the same motives for doing what they do. Lloyd wants to be the most popular man on campus and goes out of his way to impress his classmates by imitating a character in a movie and then trying out for the football team once he realizes he’s become a laughingstock. Keaton could not care less about the rest of the campus: he just wants to win the heart of one girl by conforming to what she finds desirable.

Spoiler warning—if you do not want, then skip the next three paragraphs!

Much has been made of the strange ending. Traditionally, such a lightweight, gag-based picture would end with Ronald and Mary walking out of the church hand-in-hand, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Instead, College keeps going forward: we cut to scenes of parenthood, old age, and then death. If that wasn’t dark enough, the tone here is quite cynical. When the two are married, they seem to be fully in love, almost fused together in one another’s arms. But after? The scene of the couple with their children does not show a close family unit: the kids play in the background as their parents sit next to one another, not holding hands or even making eye contact, but absorbed in separate activities, oblivious to each other and the kids. Then we see the Ronald and Mary as an old married couple: seated side by side, there is a sense of hostility between them with Ronald disagreeably saying something to his wife while she stares into space.

When we get to the final image of the two gravestones, it is not a symbol of two soulmates together in death: there seems to be something sadder at play, a sense that Ronald wasted his potential and his life by bothering to win the day, that perhaps pursuing athletics did “curse” him after all! It’s almost the opposite of The General, where Keaton’s character saves the day and finds happiness by being who he is: an engineer, not a soldier (well, not until the end, but still—we never see Ronald use his own God-given brains to do much in College the way Johnnie Gray uses his skills as an engineer).

Of course, I’m sure Keaton didn’t intend any deep thinking to be read into this ending. I’m sure the more psychoanalytical film-goer will think this is some commentary on Keaton’s own marriage at the time, which disintegrated more with every year and ended in a nasty divorce in 1932, but I’m reluctant to go that far. Maybe he just wanted to kid the typical Hollywood ending? Or maybe he was expressing his own dissatisfaction with the film? It feels almost satiric, but if that is the case, then it does not gel with the rest of the film, which stays fast to the conventions of its genre without once poking fun at the genre itself.

Nevertheless, College is not nearly as big of a dud as some claim it to be. Yes, it’s not inventive as Keaton’s more inspired work, but even a minor Keaton film such as this has its own kind of low-key charms that make it pleasant viewing. Minor Keaton is still Keaton after all, and that can never be 100 percent bad.

Wild Orchids (dir. Sidney Franklin, 1929)

Wild_Orchids-02

Be warned: this review features spoilers.

Wild Orchids is never going to be listed as one of the finest films of the silent era, but for those who adore uninhibited kitsch, then this Garbo vehicle is perfect. Unashamedly melodramatic with its tried and true melodramatic love triangle stock plot set in an orientalist never-never land, it is great campy fun.

Rather than a temptress out to seduce and destroy men or a free-spirited modern woman punished by society, Garbo plays Lillie Sterling, a wealthy young woman married to a much older man. John Sterling (played by the always solid Lewis Stone) is a nice enough fellow, though he is neglectful of his wife. Of course, this being a Hollywood film, the penalty for ignoring your attractive, much younger wife, and thus leaving her romantically and sexually unsatisfied, is for the script to introduce a roguish rival. Cue Prince De Gace (Nils Asther), whom Garbo first encounters in the hallway of a ship en course to the Indonesian island of Java, where John plans on doing business. Lillie is not terribly impressed upon their first meeting as De Gace is mercilessly beating one of his servants. Realizing how awkward this is, he smiles and nods, attempting to put on the charm, but Lillie makes sure to pass on by. It’s not the best first impression, but if there’s one concept foreign to De Gace, it’s giving up on a promising conquest.

The prince befriends John, offering to house him and Lillie in his own palace and further tempting his new pal with a tiger-hunting trip. When alone with Lillie, De Gace tries to break down her resistance toward him—by manhandling and forcing kisses upon her, of course! Lillie tells her husband she’s uncomfortable around him, but John dismisses her uneasiness as mild xenophobia. He trusts the prince completely, allowing him to be alone with his wife constantly. Of course, Lillie can only handle so much titillation and as time wears on, it’s getting harder and harder to resist the prince’s advances…

3671869829_eb7c1783be_o

Wild Orchids is pure, unfiltered classic era MGM in terms of content and visuals. The MGM style was one of glossy, pearly black-and-white, beautiful stars in soft focus, and the highest of production values. We have our well-dressed and attractive stars in exotic palaces. We have Garbo slinking about in a (by 1929 standards) revealing dancer’s outfit. We have Asther brimming with sex appeal and passion. We have a ferocious tiger figuring into the climax. All the nine yards, that’s the MGM way.

The majority of the plot (written by John Colton, most known for penning the play Rain, which had been filmed as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson the year before) is the stuff of 1920s orientalist fantasy, following the idea of the east as a place where sensuality is allowed to run free of all western social convention. This was a common trope of 1920s cinema, most famously exemplified in that delightfully inept classic of kitsch, The Sheik where we have a western woman whose sexual frigidity is broken down by a lusty man of the east (or in that case, a white dude masquerading as a man of the east). As you can expect of a Hollywood product of the 1920s dealing with any kind of non-western culture, Wild Orchids is content to fetishize the Javanese. It’s not as bad as the Sheik films in that area, but it’s still more than a little problematic, of course.

7974535_orig

Wild Orchids gives Garbo a break from being the exotic seductress for once, transferring those duties to Asther. She’s a sexually frustrated “good woman,” her marital alienation rendering her vulnerable to the prince’s amorous advances. Being “good” she cannot pursue De Gace herself ; the heat between them can only manifest itself as a sexual cat and mouse game, with Lillie as the mouse. There’s a thick layer of sadomasochism in the Lillie/De Gace interactions: she dreams of him with that whip, writhing about in her sleep in an almost orgasmic manner, and finally submitting to him toward the end of the film, melting into his arms. Though Garbo is certainly the star and though she was usually presented as a sort of Other, here Lillie is meant to be a surrogate for the women in the audience, so-called decent women wishing to shake off responsibility and get some satisfaction.

Asther is one of those rare leading men able to match Garbo in charisma. One of the casualties of the cultural rift between the Jazz Age and the early years of the Great Depression, his career dwindled, though he was allowed to give a fine performance opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Here he’s an excellent antagonist, simultaneously charming and creepy.

Of course, in the end, Lillie only has room for one man in her heart and that’s good old John, though one does wonder what she sees in him. Though Stone imbues him with a great deal of likeability, he does ignore and disregard her to such a great degree that it borders on condescending. One detail which highlights the rift between them is their sleeping in separate beds (remember this is before the Hayes Code made married couples in the same bed a cinematic sin) and John’s surprised reaction to a double bed in the bedchamber given to Lillie courtesy of De Gace.

968full-wild-orchids-photo

The 100 minute runtime is a bit unjustified. The story screeches to a halt so the main trio can watch a Javanese dance in a scene almost reminiscent of the banquet in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t mind a break from the action for campy dancing, but did it have to be ten minutes long? All while adding nothing to the character dynamics or the story? It just makes the picture drag, which is a shame since the rest of the film has excellent pacing. Fifteen minutes off the runtime would have worked wonders. Being a late silent film, Wild Orchids also sports a Vitaphone soundtrack. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of them with their distracting sound effects and intrusive pop songs plastered over scenes where they don’t fit, but your mileage may vary.

Overall, if you love old-school kitsch as much as I do, then Wild Orchids is worth the overlong running time. Garbo fans will relish her presence. But as for anyone else, there’s little else to recommend it.

The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: The Beloved Rogue (dir. Alan Crosland, 1927)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Beloved_Rogue

This submission is for the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out the site for most Barrymore-themed posts!

While he had a prolific stage career and starred in more than a few sound pictures, I have always associated John Barrymore with silent film. His turn as the tormented Dr. Jekyll and the lecherous Mr. Hyde is his most famous performance in this medium, but Barrymore also dabbled in his fair share of escapist historical flicks, such as Beau Brummel and Don Juan. But my favorite of the lot has to be The Beloved Rogue, a masterpiece of ham and swashbuckling.

Doctor macro image of john barrymore

Villon once he cleans up during act two.

Barrymore plays Francois Villon, a thirteenth century French poet who also specializes in lovemaking, partying, and general mayhem. However, his prankster nature gets him in trouble with the erratic Louis XI (Conrad Veidt in his campy-licious American film debut) and the treacherous Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), the former of which proceeds to banish Francois from his beloved Paris for undermining royal authority. Francois gets over his heartbreak quickly and starts plotting to get back at the king and his cronies, whilst also falling in love with the beautiful Charlotte de Vauxcelles (Marceline Day), an ardent fan of his poetry. His desire for revenge and Charlotte intersect when the unwilling young woman is betrothed to Burgundy himself.

The Beloved Rogue is a lark, offering the best of old-school Hollywood escapism: the swashbuckling action, good humor, fun characters, and romance under the starlight. In the traditional MGM fashion, the production values are sublime. Essentially, all the good stuff in pure, unfiltered form. The supporting cast is fabulous all around. The lovely Marceline Day makes a good contrast to Barrymore’s intense energy with her character’s reserved nature. Or maybe that’s just me being nice about her rather wooden acting. At any rate, her performance is inoffensive and she’s lovely to look at in her grand costumes. Mack Swain and Slim Summerville are great fun as Barrymore’s clownish lackeys. And then there’s Conrad Veidt, who plays the creepy Louis XI, a character whose danger to Francois ebbs and flows with his paranoia and good humor.

But of course, the one who steals the show is Barrymore himself. Ah the ham that is this performance, the delightful ham! As Villon, he leaps through Paris with the gusto of Douglas Fairbanks. He’s unafraid to troll anyone, including the king, and generally acts like an imp. That is, until he shares the frame with Marceline Day. I do confess that I wish his character had retained his sense of mischief when courting his lady love; he changes on a dime to an ardent wooer once the two are alone together. Ah well, it’s John Barrymore in his prime doing love scenes—who am I to complain?

Villon and pals party hard.

Villon and pals party hard.

The only flaw of the picture would be the climax, which features Barrymore being tortured in a manner more befitting a drama than a swashbuckler. It’s unpleasant and ruins the fun. But otherwise, The Beloved Rogue is awesome, an example of Hollywood excess done right and Barrymore ham cooked to perfection.

Desert Nights (dir. William Nigh, 1929)

Poster - Desert Nights (1929)_04

There are so many idiotic myths surrounding 1920s matinee idol John Gilbert, mainly the notion that he possessed a squeaky voice which destroyed any chance of a successful career in the talkies. Those who don’t use Singin’ in the Rain as their basis for cinematic history know there were greater elements at play in the demise of Gilbert’s stardom: studio politics and especially the cultural shift brought on by the Great Depression. The screen type of the torrid, swashbuckling lover which Gilbert personified was no longer in vogue by the early 1930s, rendering him obsolete as far as the movie-going public was concerned.

Viewers with this knowledge will come to Gilbert’s final silent Desert Nights with a sense of melancholy. His first talkie His Glorious Night would wreck his image with its overly florid love scenes and Gilbert’s delivery of the purple dialogue (not his voice itself). In contrast, Desert Nights is much grittier, centering around a trio of thoroughly unlikeable characters motivated by greed, anger, and lust. It’s a handsome film at that, photographed by the legendary cameraman and master of low-key lighting James Wong Howe. The story itself is rather trite, a framework on which to explore heat-induced insanity and a deadly love triangle.

Anger, danger, pent-up lust, and being stranded in the desert-- this will end well.

Anger, danger, pent-up lust, and being stranded in the desert– this will end well.

Desert Nights is an entertaining and compact little film, clocking in at a little over an hour. Gilbert plays Hugh, the manager of an African diamond mine, hard and feeling isolated after years away from his home in the States. One day, he is called upon by a father and daughter pair of English aristocrats, played by the wonderful Ernest Torrence and blonde Mary Nolan. Entranced by the woman’s delicate beauty, Hugh is smitten right away and pitches woo the moment they are alone, to which she reluctantly reciprocates.

But the next day, his romantic illusions are shattered. Turns out the blue-blooded duo are merely imposters who arrived before the real guests of honor, their true aim being to rob a bagful of diamonds from Hugh before kidnapping him. With their gang of crooks and African guides, they spirit Hugh away into the desert. However, their plans do not come out the way they intended: the greedy Torrence poisons the rest of the gang, the oxen driving their wagon die, and the African guides abandon them, leaving the trio trapped in the middle of the desert with Hugh left as their sole hope. But he doesn’t take too kindly to being betrayed, particularly by the alluring Nolan. Delirium, madness, and sexual tension ensue.

Gilbert is in fine form here, playing his usual character with a dark twist. I’ve often heard him compared to Errol Flynn, which does hold up. Both possessed a similar screen persona: a character who thoroughly enjoys life, laughs in death’s face, and knows when to get serious. Here, the seriousness gets amped up a bit. Hugh’s frustration, already pent up before the film’s beginning, bursts into disturbing fruition once he’s a hostage. There’s a great amount of sadomasochism on display, with a sweating Gilbert often trussed up and teased by Nolan, who calls him “good-looking.” The power balance shifts once Torrence agrees to have Gilbert freed so they might get back to civilization alive; Gilbert manhandles Nolan constantly, gleefully describes the painful ways in which they could all die, and withholds water from his captors. Do note that the manhandling part is not treated with any sense of romance; Gilbert’s character is going insane, driven to sadism by the actions of the thieves. Thank God that unlike Valentino’s deluded character in Son of the Sheik, he never goes too far with his actions against the leading lady; he makes it look as though he plans on forcing his desires upon Nolan in one scene, but it’s all a bluff to anger Torrence, who also lusts after the woman.

Torrence makes for a great foil to Gilbert with his large size and pug face. Silent film fans will remember him as Buster Keaton’s curmudgeonly father in Steamboat Bill Jr. and Captain Hook in the 1924 adaptation of Peter Pan. His presence alone makes the movie worth a look as he plays the role of mad scumbag extremely well. The only weak link among the actors is Mary Nolan. Though beautiful, I have always found her inadequate in emotionally demanding roles such as this film or the macabre Lon Chaney melodrama West of Zanzibar. She wails and flails her arms to simulate madness, and it usually comes across as comical rather than harrowing.

Is the resolution to this relationship credible?

Is the resolution to this relationship credible?

But Nolan’s performance isn’t what ultimately leaves the viewer dissatisfied; that’s the ending which lacks all dramatic credibility. MGM was obviously more comfortable with a conventionally romantic conclusion: even after all the torment he’s been put through, Hugh loves the jewel thief anyway. For some reason, the authorities allow him to decide her fate (matrimony) rather than carting her off to a cell. Maybe it’s just me, but after an hour of madness, frustrated lust, and delirium in the desert sands, these two getting a happily ever after doesn’t cut it in the dramatic sense. Not that Desert Nights required a downbeat ending with everyone dying in the heat a la Greed, but something more original should have been implemented.

Still, what works is what stays with you when the film ends: Gilbert’s bitterness and lust, Torrence’s madness, and the oppression of the desert heat. The last few minutes can be forgiven, because the psychological drama works so well. In hindsight, Desert Nights or a film similar to it might have been more ideal for Gilbert’s talkie debut. It certainly would have been a better induction into the hard-boiled and cynical pre-code era.

Images courtesy of Doctor Macro

The General (dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)

8691

“[The General contains] the purest distillation of Buster Keaton’s style and persona. If you want to know who he was, as an artist and a man, just watch the ten minutes or so that make up the first chase sequence.”

Imogen Sara Smith, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy (160)

Whether you’re a seasoned Keaton fan or a newcomer, The General is an odd film. Those who come to the film expecting “the greatest war comedy ever made” often leave puzzled, quick to deride it as “overrated.” When the film debuted in 1926, critics and audiences alike denounced it as Keaton’s “least funny” picture, leaving the movie lukewarm box office returns.

The General’s greatness does not come from the amount of belly laughs it inspires. Truth be told, Keaton’s short films, Seven Chances, and Steamboat Bill Jr. are all significantly funnier. It baffles my mind when people describe The General as a straightforward war comedy, because when looked at closely, the film defies genre classification. Yes, Buster Keaton is a comedian and yes, the film is largely comedic, but it is just as dramatic and suspenseful as it is funny. Yet it’s not a dramedy, at least not in the manner of Chaplin. And while the film deals with the Civil War, I’m not sure if it could be classified as a war film, seeing as The General is completely uninterested in the larger context of and politics behind the war. The hero may be a Confederate, but unlike something such as Gone with the Wind, the Union army is not made out to be treacherous and the Southern cause is not celebrated; the hero Johnnie Gray’s individual ingenuity and bravery is. The genre which may be the best fit for The General could be that of action-adventure, but once again, this disregards the rest of the elements of the story.

"Underplay" is the word of the day when it comes to describing the artistic success of The General.

“Underplay” is the word of the day when it comes to describing the artistic success of The General.

So what makes this film great if it is not “the funniest” movie ever made? The General can be hard for some to appreciate for one reason: the film is understatement incarnate. Its visual beauty is understated, the comedy is understated, the acting is understated, heck, even that famous shot of the Texas crashing into the lake during the climax of the film, hailed as the most expensive shot of the silent era, is underplayed. And yet, it is also awe-inspiring. In The General, Keaton plays with the biggest canvas he was ever given, doing risky stunts on a moving engine, clowning during battle sequences, and creating moments so thrilling because you know it was all real and not in front of a rear-projected image.

When I think of The General, I think of smoking billowing from the mouth of a cannon or the top of an old-fashioned engine, light filtering through the Oregon foliage as Johnnie and his lady love awake in the woods, and Johnnie struggling to chop wood as his engine rushes past the retreating Confederate army. Everything is shot on location and the historical elements coordinated with an aim for accuracy. This quality gives The General a naturalistic feel, one often compared to Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war. There’s no excess in the imagery, no desire to sear your eyes with visual splendor.

There’s also no beating around the bush in terms of story. The General is the most economical of narratives; Keaton introduces us to Johnnie, shows us what and who he cares about, and establishes his problems in the first fifteen minutes. There’s not an ounce of fat upon the plot, no extraneous scenes. Every gag and set piece serves to further the chase, working together like a well-oiled machine.

Stone Face?

Stone Face?

A great deal of the comedy comes from Buster’s reactions. Erroneously dubbed the Great Stone Face, Keaton is the master of expression, communicating emotions and thought through the most minute shifts of muscle or eyebrow in his face. One of my favorite moments is when Johnnie, after sneaking Annabelle in a sack onto a boxcar, sees other soldiers loading heavy-looking boxes and barrels on top of her. He just has this look which encapsulates the phrase, “aw crap,” but without popping his eyes or dropping his jaw.

Johnnie Gray stands apart from Keaton’s other character types, the wealthy milquetoast or the lovesick and unworldly young man: he comes off as more of an adult due to having a job at which he excels and not excessively mooning over Annabelle, maturely (if passively) handling her rejection of him. He does have his clumsy moments and is often plagued by having a sort of tunnel vision in regards to what he’s doing, but in the end, Johnnie is a dashing and resourceful hero: brave, handsome, and intelligent. And despite doing all of these amazing things, Johnnie is still an everyman, both who we are and who we would wish to be. When Keaton goes back to playing lovesick young men trying to make good in College and Steamboat Bill Jr, it feels almost like a step back after the maturity of Johnnie.

That’s another word which describes this film: mature. In many ways, this is like a culmination of Keaton’s particular brand of artistry and attitude toward feature film storytelling. No surrealism or cartoonish physics. No playing for pathos. The comedy and the drama are fused together, inseparable, keeping the audience invested and grounded in this world and making the people inhabiting this story more human and relate-able. Critic Imogen Sara Smith was correct when she asserted that The General is the “most serious comedy ever made.”

As close to perfection as movies get.

As close to perfection as movies get.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The General was ahead of its time and it’s ahead of ours. Can you see something like this coming out of today’s Hollywood? They’d beg for more explosions, romance, or sidekicks to crowd the movie, destroying the economy and intelligence. I’m sure there will always be people who use the dreaded O-word in regards to this movie, but if it left you cold upon initial viewing, I would urge you to give it another chance and view it with fresh eyes. It is the sort of film which rewards multiple sittings, revealing layers of greatness and beauty with continued exposure. I have seen it several times in the five years since I first saw it and I still notice new things every time I pop the Blu-ray in. No, it’s not a laugh riot; it’s defies all classification and offers viewers something different and fresh, even close to 90 years later. It has come to be my favorite movie, encapsulating all I love about both Buster Keaton and the silent era’s mode of storytelling. Thrilling, funny, and epic, it is not to be missed.

… And Scene blogathon: The descent to the lair in The Phantom of the Opera

For the “… And Scene!” blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid.

20120915-234304

For the “… And Scene!” blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid.

The famous unmasking scene is the one great scene in the unevenly directed The Phantom of the Opera. But my favorite of them is definitely the moment the Phantom puts Christine into a trance and leads her down into his underground domain.

It really has a sense of entering another world, like Hades taking Persephone into the Underworld. We get to take in Ben Carre’s fabulous sets: the stone walls, the walkways going down and down until they reach the lake which leads to the Phantom’s well-furnished apartment. The image of the Phantom rowing a gondola as Christine sits in the back with her scarf trailing in the water is iconic, an image appropriated (and mostly connected with) the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical adaptation.

The whole sequence is filmed in long and medium shot. Hack director Rupert Julian does this a lot during some of the bigger scenes, thus diminishing their effectiveness. The most infamous example of this tendency is the bit where Raoul and Ledoux are trapped in the torture chamber; Julian shoots the scene like it’s still 1908, keeping the actors away from the camera and having them stumble about like drunkards in the hopes the audience will believe it’s delirium. But in the descent to the lair sequence, this distancing works well, enhancing the sense of mystery.

A great deal of my enjoyment also comes from Carl Davis’ score. The use of strings creates a haunting, half-awake quality, as though you were napping one moment and caught up in some strange fantasy the next.

The Phantom of the Opera may be uneven, but it’s moments like this which have ensured its classic status.

Lonesome (dir. Paul Fejos, 1928)

Lonesome-11

The late 1920s is a fascinating chapter in the history of cinema. 1928 had the silent film right at the height of its artistic maturity, while sound loomed on the horizon. What many have come to call the “part-talkie” is a curious phenomenon of this period. The Jazz Singer was not a 100% sound film, despite what Singin’ in the Rain and your high school textbook’s chapter on the Roaring Twenties claim; it was essentially a silent film with sound interludes, but it did whet the public’s appetite for this new medium.

Paul Fejos’ celebrated city symphony Lonesome belongs to this transitional period, though there’s more of the late silent era in it than the early talkie revolution. If anything, the sound portions of the film show why people thought the talkie was a passing fad: compared to the free-roving camera, frantic action, and vivid acting in the silent portions, the three sound scenes inserted into the film are static and awkward, not to mention completely inconsequential to the story. Judging from the way the charisma bleeds right out of their performances once the sound clicks on, it’s quite obvious the two leads Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon are uncomfortable with the microphone.

Umm, where did we put that microphone again?

The sound scenes may be stilted, but at least the tinting is still gorgeous.

But the awkwardness of the talking scenes are ultimately forgivable, for the rest of Lonesome is magnificent, one of the triumphs of 1920s Hollywood. The story is simple: two lonely young people stuck in unfulfilling jobs meet during a holiday at Coney Island, fall in love while having a good time, and then nearly lose one another forever amongst the madness of the crowd. For silent film geeks, this all should sound familiar; movies like Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Vidor’s The Crowd feature similar stories about people lost in the beauty and anxiety of city life. However, Lonesome is much more optimistic than the bitter-sweetness of The Crowd and less dark than Sunrise. The lion’s share of the picture takes place amidst the frenzy of Coney Island on the Independence Day weekend, just following two ordinary folks riding the rides, eating ice cream, and dancing underneath the moonlight. Combined with the vivacious cinematography and use of montage, the whole thing is a delight to watch, a testament to the power of pure image-based storytelling, supplemented only by a few sound effects.

Kent and Tryon are charming in the leads, both cute but never cloying. Their love at first sight may not be fashionable for some, but the fairy tale feel of the movie allows the audience to buy into their instant affection and make us believe that fate has brought them together. The power of their performances becomes apparent once the two are separated. They whirl about the manic crowd, wondering whether to stay in place or keep on wandering amongst the masses. The tears in Tryon’s eyes as he forlornly gives up the search provoked tears of my own. How many bigger, grander, more melodramatic Hollywood love stories set in ancient times and foreign lands have attempted to wring the hearts of audience with the separation of two beautiful people in love and done so with as much power as this little tale of two working class kids scared to death by the possibility that they’ve lost a potential soul mate? Not many.

Kent and Tryon's chemistry make their whirlwind romance believable.

Kent and Tryon’s chemistry make their whirlwind romance believable.

It’s films like Lonesome that make me wish the silent era had carried on a little longer. Visually luxurious and emotionally potent without the need for a convoluted plot or cackling villains out to wrench the protagonists apart, it’s a treasure of a film and I’m awfully glad it’s getting the attention it deserves in more recent years.

Shorts blogathon: Oh, What a Knight (1928) and Ye Olden Days (1933)

heavy

This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by the queen of all things silent film related, Fritzi Kramer. Check out her Movies Silently website to dig into other bite-sized goodness!

Ever since Disney reacquired the rights to the character back in 2006, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has made a quasi-comeback, at least in the world of video games and critical limelight. When most think Disney history, they begin their examination with Mickey Mouse’s debut in the late 1920s, but by the time Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks came up with the character, they had already had years of experience in animation behind them, dating back to the early 1920s with the  Laugh-O-Gram series. The two found moderate success with their Alice Comedies, which featured a cute live-action girl in an animated world; however, it wasn’t until the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit that Disney would taste major success. I won’t go into how the character was taken from Disney or how he lost every animator on his team save for Iwerks to their producer, Charles Mintz; God knows, other folks online and off have explained it better.

One thing which fascinates me about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is how distinct he is from his successor, Mickey Mouse. While there are obvious design similarities, the characters are quite different. Examining these contrasts is especially delicious when you take into account how many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts are just remakes of Oswald’s Disney material, some more obviously than others. Plane Crazy shares the premise of The Ocean Hop; the same applies to All Wet and Wild Waves. The Oscar-winning Building a Building is a close remake of Sky Scrappers. I could go on all day about the differences in characterization and gags in all of them, but for now, let’s focus on one rich example: the difference between Oswald’s Oh, What a Knight and its remake, Ye Olden Days.

[Quick note: Oswald’s feline love interest never had a stable name; back in the 1920s/1930s, it was usually given as Sadie or Kitty, but ever since the Epic Mickey video game series, she has been rechristened Ortensia. I will refer to her by her modern name just for simplicity’s sake.]

Both shorts share the same general plot: Oswald/Mickey is a wandering minstrel who falls in love with fair damsel Ortensia/Minnie, who is being held prisoner by her father. The story ends with a gag-filled sword fight and the young lovers living happily ever after. Aside from one or two shared gags, this is where the comparisons end.

img278

As mentioned previously, Oswald and Mickey are distinct characters, though both have a touch of the silent cinema swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in them. The most oft-mentioned difference is their approaches to romance. Oswald is a rather amorous character, having two love interests in Ortensia and the rabbit Fanny during his Disney run; the Epic Mickey games subtly highlight this trait with the existence of Oswald and Ortensia’s 400 plus bunny children. Oh, What a Knight makes this quality a huge source for gags. Oswald and Ortensia are unable to keep their lips off of one another, with steam emitting from every kiss and Oswald returning to get more sugar in mid-sword fight. In contrast, Mickey is much more boyish in his romantic interactions with Minnie (save for his infamous behavior in Plane Crazy), saving the smooches for the end of the short, in this case, discreetly behind a fan.

Eat your heart out Valentino!

Eat your heart out Valentino!

The way the romantic scenes play out in general are quite different; both shorts share a piece of business, but pull it off with different tones. The basic business is that the girl blows a kiss from the balcony, the boy reacts, and then defies physics to reach the balcony. In Oh, What a Knight, this romantic gesture is a gag: Ortensia kisses the air, puts the kiss in her fist, and winds her arm like a pitcher on the field before throwing the kiss to Oswald, where it smacks him on the lips and sends him reeling. This amuses Oswald’s donkey; Oswald tells him to shut it, then ties a rope to the donkey’s tail and somehow throws it to the balcony edge. The donkey wags his tail and Oswald rides up the rope as though it were an escalator.

Less steamy, to be sure...

Less steamy, to be sure…

Ye Olden Days paints this moment with a sense of whimsy and emotional sincerity. Minnie kisses a flower and tosses it down the Mickey, who’s standing on a tree branch. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he leaps from the branch and practically glides up to the window. Less funny and certainly less complicated than the aforementioned business of the Oswald short, but better in keeping with the tone Ye Olden Days is going for: it wants to be more than just eight minutes of laughs by incorporating more feeling and drama into the mix. Not that Oh, What a Knight’s lack of ambition makes it inferior; remember, these are two shorts that, while sharing the same theme and general story framework, want to achieve wildly different ends.

On another note, Oswald is also much more confrontational than Mickey. He’s perfectly content to settle things with his fists, whereas the more good-natured Mickey is more laidback and usually tries to solve issues with his wits. This is displayed in the climactic scenes of both cartoons: while Oswald has a few tricks up his furry sleeves, it’s Mickey who predominantly makes use of ways to outwit his enemy without engaging him head on with a weapon.

The Oswald cartoon is above all else concerned with stringing one gag after another than story or character, and it packs all of this comic business within a tight structure. In the essential book on silent era animation, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, Donald Crafton breaks down the “classical” structure of the Disney Oswald cartoon: the introduction, a comic episode, a romantic interlude, the confrontation with the villain, and then the climax and conclusion (294). Knight follows this structure exactly.

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at swordfight

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at sword fight

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

This is all there is to the plot. The majority of the run time focuses on all the silly things Oswald does while dueling Pete in the tower. Aside from Oswald, none of the other characters are given much personality at all.

An unlikely villain

An unlikely villain

By 1933, the Disney studio’s ambitions had extended beyond the realm of gags; there was more of an effort to tell stories and focus on character. Ye Olden Days is essentially a mini-musical with a plot that’s a little more intricate than just “good guy beats bad guy and saves the girl.” For one thing, there’s a larger cast: we have Mickey as the underdog hero, Minnie as the damsel in distress, Pete as the king, Clarabelle as Minnie’s handmaiden, and Goofy as the villainous suitor for Minnie’s hand (in 1933, he was christened “Dippy Dawg,” but I’ll keep things simple and just call him Goofy). Though it’s surreal to see Goofy as an antagonist, and even more so as a romantic rival for Minnie of all people (or… mice, I guess), all of these cartoon stars are ‘cast’ perfectly in their roles.

7

The Mickey version takes the bare-bones narrative of the original cartoon and amps up the stakes by fleshing out the story. The father-king doesn’t just stand in the way of the central romance; he’s both comic and threatening, almost having poor Mickey guillotined before Minnie begs for his life (let’s just ignore the fact that the guillotine wasn’t even invented until the eighteenth century). The drama is much higher; by introducing a princely rival and putting his life at stake, Mickey is more of an underdog than Oswald was in his short. This aspect of the character is what made him so appealing to the Depression era audience; it’s also what makes the Mickey cartoons of the early 1930s so much more interesting than the majority of the character’s later ventures, where his good nature was not paired with suitable scenarios which brought out this underdog quality.

One other obvious difference between the two shorts is the musical aspect of the Mickey cartoon, pretty obvious given this is a sound film and musicals were popular in the early 1930s. While not as catchy as the numbers in Building a Building, which is the best Mickey “musical” short in my opinion, the songs are nice and move the plot along swiftly.

But lest we forget, there is one thing that those Disney folks never lost sight of in the transition from silence to sound, from rabbit to mouse: butt-related humor forever.

But seriously.....

But seriously…..

... you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

… you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

For all their differences in characterization and storytelling concerns, the Oswald and Mickey series are great fun and feature a good deal of the Disney staff experimenting with the medium. It’s easy to just view all of it as a playground for ideas and concepts to be put to “better” use in the studio’s famous feature films, but that’s ignoring the art of the short film, of the freewheeling animated short films of Hollywood’s classical period. So, if you haven’t already, sit back and enjoy some classic Disney goodness courtesy of YouTube.